Rio de Janeiro

Mario Cravo Neto

Museu de Arte Moderna

Mario Cravo Neto is one of the few prominent Brazilian artists still living in his home country (many of his compatriots have set up house in Europe and North America). Based in Salvador, Bahia (a city in one of the poorest regions of Brazil, the Northeast), Cravo Neto is a master of the formal language of photography. His most recent show (the final stop of an exhibition tour which opened at the Museu da Bahia, Salvador) comprised black and white photographs that portray their subjects in strange yet balanced configurations. Luscious and slick, these images are undeniably beautiful, almost perfect: their sharp focus and printing complement the photographer’s rich use of textures and contrasts and his clever manipulation of composition and lighting.

This exhibition was a retrospective of work produced between 1983 and 1995. The majority of the photographs portray what has now become highly contested subject matter: the other. Images of women and black men, many of them naked, dominate the show. As if to make matters worse, the subjects’ faces are often veiled, hidden, or out of the lens’ range. The resulting images flirt openly with another bête noire: primitivism. Figura voodoo (Voodoo figure, 1988), for instance, portrays a black man squatting, his naked body covered with splashes of some kind of dried-out liquid, his head looking down at the floor in a position that alternately suggests deep concentration and guilt. Criança voodoo (Voodoo child, 1990) depicts the naked torso of a black boy who holds a large and seemingly exotic feathery animal. The examples continue: men hide themselves behind birds (Homem corn lágrimas de pássaro [Man with bird tears, 1992]), stones (Máscara X [Mask X, 1993]), a turtle (O Deus da cabeça [The god of the head, 1988]), or their own hands (Tinho [mãos] [Tinho, (hands), 1990]); women are covered by veils (Kade com véu [dormindo], [Kade with veil (sleeping), 1993]), or have their faces wrapped with thread (Luciana, 1994). Among those few photographs that depict white figures are those of babies and one of a young man whose right arm is raised to reveal a big scar left from what looks like a burn (Thomas, 1994). It’s all here: from the objectification of the subject to the exoticization of the other. But it is not, finally, whether these images engage in the current debates about representations of the other that is at issue here, but what distinguishes his photographs, at their best, from those of his peers.

What drew my attention at Cravo Neto’s exhibit were two images. One of them consists of a stone inserted into a human ear. The subject’s skin is light and the hair dark, and though clearly young, the subject was photographed from an angle which makes it difficult to determine his or her sex. Silêncio (Silence, 1992) stood out from the other works with their problematic valorization of the primitive, drawing in the viewer with its powerful, poetic vision. Placed as it is, the black round-shaped stone lends the figure a mythic quality. Yet it is the title of the work that pushes the piece into a realm at once somewhere prior to and beyond the primitive—the realm of silence. Here, we seem to be getting somewhere.

The second image, the very last photograph that confronted the viewer leaving the museum’s exhibition halls, was a self-portrait (Autoretrato, 1995), which showed a white, dark-haired man in his 40s clad in loose-fitting clothes. The striking thing about the image is that the photographer’s right eye is covered by a fairly elaborate bandage. What tragic accident has he been the victim of? What awful scars did it leave behind? From the partial deafness of Silêncio, one moves to the partial blindness of Autoretrato. Perhaps here lies the ultimate lesson which, if it does not fully absolve the artist from his political mishandlings, might point to the true nature of the photographer’s activity as one that is forever partial, biased, and fragmentary.

Adriano Pedrosa